July was a banner month for surveillance reform. For years, civil libertarians have warned about the widespread practice of third-party data brokers selling Americans’ most sensitive and private information, scraped from our apps, to more than a dozen federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the many agencies of the Department of Homeland Security.
The public is alarmed. Lawmakers in both parties are beginning to take effective action.
In July, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed The Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act, which would restrict the ability of government agencies to warrantless extract Americans’ personal information from data purchases. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is reintroducing this measure in the Senate.
If the will of the Congress wasn’t clear enough, also in July the House passed an amendment sponsored by Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH) and Sara Jacobs (D-CA) to the National Defense Authorization Act that expressly prohibits half of the intelligence community, including the NSA and the Defense Intelligence Agency, from purchasing our data at all, absent a warrant, court order, or subpoena.
Supporters of similar reforms range from the conservative Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jim Jordan, to the liberal Ranking Member and former Chairman, Jerry Nadler. A passion for surveillance reform brings together respected members from Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) to Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), from Sen. Wyden to Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT).
It might seem, then, that surveillance reform is now a slam-dunk certainty. It isn’t.
Consider the fate of Lee-Leahy, a bill that would have imposed the rather modest goal of requiring the judges of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to seek the advice of civil liberties experts in cases that involve significant civil rights concerns when political, religious, or journalistic groups are surveilled and investigated. That measure passed the Senate in 2020 by an overwhelming 77 votes. Then, through a process of legislative confusion and the Trump Administration’s policy contortions, this modest and popular bill sailed into the round file like a paper airplane.
The Davidson-Jacobs Amendment and The Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act risk dying in a far less dramatic way than Lee-Leahy did. All the elected champions of the surveillance state have to do is let these measures die in the darkness of a committee room or the Senate calendar. More good legislation has been killed by benign neglect than by explicit filibusters.
Any American who cares about privacy and civil liberties must draw two conclusions from this realization.
First, now more than ever, civil libertarians need to ramp up the activity. Members of Congress must know that this year we won’t settle for feel-good, symbolic votes. The Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act must get a floor vote in the Senate.
Second, civil libertarians must continue to insist that FISA’s Section 702, an authority under which the government surveils foreigners, must be reformed so that it cannot continue to be used by the FBI and other agencies as a domestic surveillance tool. This reform must necessarily include closing the legal loophole that allows the government to buy our personal information and thumb through it, all without a warrant.
As Kenny Loggins sang so long ago, “this is it!” Our back is to the corner. Join the efforts of the civil liberties community by clicking here to stand up and fight!